American Majesty

It’s an attractive idea. There in the great fastness of American music, in the still, tranquil centre, stands not a singer or a rapper or a guitarist but a trumpet player. He has a lot on his mind. Great issues such as integration, education and development crowd in on him. He’s not a publicizer or a businessman, he says, but he can’t help but get pressed into these roles: he would rather, though, liken himself to the coach on the bench. Best of all, he likes to be out there playing, taking it to the bandstand, criticising by doing it himself. Then setting it down for all to hear.

“Documentation,” says Wynton. “Yes. That’s your only defence. If you’re a manufacturer, you have to manufacture. Production is the heart of everything. That’s the issue, action. You can talk – talking is fun. I like to talk. But documentation is the final word.”

Spoken like a good CEO. And Wynton is surely heading the firm. In ten years, the trumpet-playing Marsalis has squired jazz’s move from secret underbelly of American music to corporate force, commercial proposition. As the music industry became multinationally huge in the 80s, jazz unexpectedly played its part. Of course, Wynton doesn’t sell like Michael or Janet or Prince. He doesn’t go top 40. He’s not on the radio all that much. He can’t be glimpsed between Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots on MTV. Kenny G outshifts him by several to one. But Wynton leads, and his example dominates discussion of jazz business and jazz music in the USA.

For those of us who observed and lived through some of that milieu in the last decade, it’s been an extraordinary story Marsalis emerged from the ranks of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the beginning of the 8Os, a chubby teenager with a formidable agenda to go with his talent for playing the trumpet. Once he’d signed to Columbia, along with his brother Branford, his records and the promotion that went with them began altering the perception of jazz as it stood, not with the hardcore following but as it appeared to the infinitely larger audience outside. Awareness of jazz as a great American music began to swell and evolve. The new presentation created an ambience of scholarship, commitment, music for music’s sake, even as it was being marketed more persuasively than before.

Wynton didn’t have much choice: if he was going to do interviews and photo sessions and the rest, then he was going to stand up for jazz. His father, a pianist-teacher who’d scarcely strayed from his New Orleans home, raised a family of intensely articulate, hard-working boys. Jazz has produced a number of dynasties, but none as all-conquering as the Marsalises. At a time when such eminences as Miles Davis were still growling that they hated the word ‘jazz”, and most were looking to find some awkward rapprochement with the rock/soul audience, along came this bespectacled, stocky man with a New Orleans accent who said, no. Jazz is the music we should be playing. We’re going to play it, and we’re going to succeed with it.

It was labelled as the return of hard bop, neo-conservatism, nice suits and respect for the tradition. But it wasn’t so simple as revivalism. If the music restored the qualities of the hard bop instrumentation, it didn’t really sound like something that had been cultivated from hard bop language. Marsalis assembled a school of performers who seemed to arrive from nowhere, all well versed in jazz lore as well as in playing their instruments. After a while, it was clear that these guys could play anything. As record followed record, Wynton was documenting his own Americana, a take on the tradition that aimed to be as multifarious and all-inclusive as jazz itself.

It was a bigger game than anyone had really imagined at the start. If his first bands sounded like oblique descendants of the already-oblique Miles Davis groups of the early 60s, that shell was soon shucked in favour of Mingusian ensembles, Ellingtonian voicings, New Orleans survivals that could embrace Jelly Roll Morton and Joe Oliver. It looked able to spread in any direction, but always within jazz. If Branford chose to go adventuring with Sting and Danny Devito, and tap into a populism that would eventually net him the job of bandmaster for the The Tonight Show, Wynton has kept faith with the raw materials and masters of jazz. A parallel career in classical music has been neglected in favour of his first calling, although he now has a couple of new classical records awaiting release.

It’s an autocratic, single-minded agenda. What he is doing, he says, is “reclaiming a lot of territory”. There’s nothing left in jazz to expend pioneer spirit on. Marsalis would rather be taking the music back to the boardrooms and meeting grounds where the culture business stands or falls. They say you can’t fight city hall, and Wynton would probably agree. So he’s working with it instead: “we have meetings and stuff – banking people, real estate people, the mayor’s office. It’s a citywide effort”. Specifically, this is all to do with his role as an artistic director of Lincoln Center’s jazz programme.

Publicizing the music is integral to everything that Marsalis does, yet he would rather absolve himself from any such burden, disingenuous as it can sometimes sound. “I’m not a publicizer for the music. I do publicity. In interviews, you have to talk about what is important to you What else am I gonna talk about my latest album7 Check it out That’s all I can say. I’m not a spokesman, I just comment on my feelings about the music and the direction it’s going in and my opinions go into the pool with all the others.”

With 17 albums under his belt (and, he claims, ten more in the can awaiting release), his records are beginning to seem like an intimidating mass. Since Marsalis’s work-in-progress philosophies are as intensely applied as, say, Steve Lacy’s or Anthony Braxton’s, creative profusion can seem like awful hard work for us listeners. Records like Hot House Flowers, Crescent Qty Christmas Card or the three Standard Time collections might be separate sidetracks, but they’re approached with the same fierce dedication. A brilliant man won’t talk down.

The most recent albums, the almost overlooked Blue Interlude, which is his most Ellington-soaked creation to date, and the new double CD Citi Movement (Griot New York), pursue a course that’s lighter yet paradoxically more challenging to absorb. Writing for a septet, Wynton flexes all his muscles, never letting time and harmony get too comfortable, paring improvisational space down to ensure that nobody gets sent to sleep by a soloist. Both sets are generously laced with his sly wit, detailed shadings, characteristics that inform his writing as much as his own playing. But if you had a hard time with the high craft of J Mood, these records won’t necessarily beckon you in. Citi Movement is charming and bristling but the sheer bulk of the thing (some 122 minutes) seems unrelieved. If Marsalis secures much of the jostle and spit of works by Ellington or Mingus, his players are arguably too super-competent to characterise them in the manner of the old music.

“If you play a head.’ he says, ‘then a long 30 minute solo, then another head, you can’t expect people to want to hear that. The average person goes to a job, works, comes home, has to deal with all their personal problems, they come to the music, they want it to remind them of something in their personal experience. A diehard fan is gonna like the specifics, but jazz has a swing to it, the blues, a conception of dialogue that makes it interesting to a person that’s not really interested in the music. When you start taking away the elements that are attractive to the public, then you’re left with someone playing a 30 minute solo I grew up on jazz concerts and I never really got into it. In modern jazz, the musicians wouldn’t seem to say that much … it’s hard to expect a lot of people to want to hear that But music went in that direction when musicians were being overtly influenced by writers. If you let something written by critics determine the value of something you grew up in, you’re making a very tragic mistake.”

Players actually change the way they play because of a bad review?
“No, not the way they play, the overall conception, this idea that “jazz music will grow into the concert hall” – Duke Ellington wasn’t thinking about that, he was thinking about the Savoy Ballroom. If you’re a musician, you have to make sure that your music actually comes out of people. If somebody says, I can’t hear melody when you’re playing, I get tired after 15 or 20 minutes listening to the same thing. We can say, that’s because you don’t know how to concentrate on the thematic development. Or we can say, maybe we need to have more elements and shifts in our music so that it doesn’t sound boring. You don’t have to throw things away to progress.

“It doesn’t mean you have to get a certain haircut or … a lot of the conception of what is modern is so conservative, so cliched. The image of a rock star kicking down a microphone, being rebellious .. that’s old, man, that’s 50 years old!” Wynton shakes his head and laughs.
“Critics give some musicians the only intellectual framework they ever had. I see that in a lot of the younger musicians – great talent, but no confidence in their intellectual capacity. A lot of my time teaching is spent telling them that it’s alright to think Don’t let them tell you you lose your soul if you think.”

In his own playing, Wynton has steadily enhanced a technique that was impressive to start with. At a London concert a couple of years ago, he delivered ballad playing which this writer for one will never forget With a tone that now stands somewhere between steely and brassy, he’s become as recognizable as – well, perhaps not the great old trumpet masters, but it’s a sound as particular as anyone playing the horn today gets. On his records, even in the densest ensembles, you can pick out his lucid timbre and rather idiosyncratic vibrato straight away. It’s not a sound that can make sense out of very broad gestures, though, and he can sometimes seem like a fish flopping on the bank when spotlit on the wrong stage: on Michael White’s records, where the clarinettist-leader sets up some beautifully spirited modern N’Orleans music, Wynton’s solos sound grotesquely overdone.

‘Sometimes.’ he reflects, ‘you don’t even think, you just hear it. it comes out Sometimes it’s a struggle. There’s never one way. Once, on a record, on “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” on Black Codes, I can remember playing that solo – after all these years, I can remember that solo coming up. When I was playing it. I could tell it had a certain internal logic about it I just knew. In the band we always talk about this – if you play something sad, you lose confidence in it You can keep playing, and it gets worse. There’s so much going on, you can’t think. Don’t think about chord changes, only hear melodies and rhythm. If you can’t hear the harmonies on a song by the time you come to play it, it’s too late, because it’s going by so fast It has to be reflex action. It’s easy to get lost in the form. Sometimes a half a beat will shift and, oh! You can’t rely on anything. You have to just … hear.”

“People are ready to be Americans, and that’s why it’s time for jazz.” Wynton told a Downbeat interviewer last year. Statesmanship is a lonely calling, which might be why Marsalis is always undercutting and turning away from such a role (publicly, at least). Whether you see it as selling an image or ‘addressing the conceptual situation”, though, statesman he is. At 31, he has no time to slow down.
“I don’t get spread that thin. I always worked a lot I had a job since I was 12 years old. I like to be busy. I know a lot of people. I don’t get nervous or upset. If I get mad, I just cuss, and that’s it. I don’t carry that around with me. To me, it’s all fun. I’m very serious about music. But that’s what I do.”

by Richard Cook
Source: The WIRE

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